Every executive understands how to get to the C-suite: dive into a management job, make a big splash, and get promoted up the ladder. Unfortunately, says top human resources executive Peter Wright, that’s often a disastrous path for your company. “The Western world in particular has this obsession with people coming in and making big changes,” says Wright. “We teach managers if you’re going to be CEO, you don’t get to the top by simply doing what your predecessor was already doing. But if you look at a given company, let’s say there are 25 or 100 managers with great seniority, and they’re all changing things for their own purposes. They’re well-intentioned, but the principal driving force is their own career, not necessarily the good of the business.”
What’s the alternative? Wright, the former Global Head of Human Resources at Zurich Financial Services, suggests a novel idea: prohibiting new managers from changing anything for a year. The idea dates from Wright’s decade-long tenure at Unilever early in his career. “In the mid-1980s, I was a young personnel guy sent to run a factory,” Wright recalls. “I used to wander around every single morning and after having been around the factory five or six weeks, I was pretty convinced that if we did XYZ, we could run the factory floor far more efficiently.” But, consulting with an older and wiser colleague, Wright received a wakeup call: “He said it was a great idea…and it had been a good idea in 1969, 1974, 1976, and so on, every time it was proposed. He said, ‘Why do people always want to come and change things? People have been on this same packing line for 25 years. Don’t you think if they had found a different way of doing things, they would have worked it out for themselves?’”
Wright, who suggested the “don’t change anything for a year” strategy during a recent talent summit at Deloitte University where we were both panelists, says that forcing executives to wait helps enhance their perceptiveness. “You can pick up a huge amount just by watching,” says Wright. “It struck me that people never spent enough time sitting and observing what was in front of them.” Additionally, it enables them to focus on big-picture strategy: “It’s not their job to sit in an office above the factory and fix every problem, because there are people who can do it better. What that realization led to was a whole new way – teaching them organizational analysis models and providing a better view of how the business was run. It freed up time that would have been used by managers diving in and trying to make an impression.”
Wright has seen the strategy, which has been employed in parts of Unilever and Philips, pay major dividends. But nonetheless, it remains a rarity. “It’s been a great conundrum for me for 20-odd years that we’ve never been able to persuade an organization in its entirety to slow down enough to actually do this,” he says. “The Western training of ‘make an impact, make a name for yourself’ cannot be the most efficient way of running an organization.”
Yet the trend seems to be toward spending shorter amounts of time at any given job, making it harder to evaluate managers’ impact and ensuring, thanks to a constant stream of new faces ‘reinventing’ the business, that work is constantly disrupted. If you’re evaluating top management candidates, says Wright, and “you’ve got two guys who have done 17 jobs in 24 years, you don’t even know if they’re good at getting stuff done. But we continue to let that happen.” Indeed, with Generation X and Generation Y churning through jobs so quickly, he says, “I can understand why that’s going to happen societally, but it causes enormous problems for organizations. Who’s actually having a real and meaningful impact, rather than just generating noise or activity?”
Given executives’ professional incentive to make splashy changes, it’s hard for organizations to embrace an alternative model. But “if you believe in what the company is doing,” says Wright, you should trust that strategy, rather than letting new managers run amok in fix-it mode. After a year of watching and learning, he says, “there’s a natural evolutionary process. You start to be able to put ideas forward that are insightful and can make real change.”
Would the “don’t change anything for a year” strategy work at your company? Why or why not? What’s your best advice for executives taking over a new assignment?
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on July 23, 2012.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.